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This book describes in detail the materials and techniques used by medieval iconographers. It offers information about the natural sources, the raw materials, the tools and the technologies involved in preparing them. The book allows entry into the secretive world of very knowledgeable and skilled artisans, about which very little is known. Topics covered include raw materials, pigments, binders, solvents, adhesives, inks and varnishes. Special chapters will be dedicated to the fresco technique as practiced by the early iconographers, grinding, painting on glass and the training/apprenticeship of these craftsmen.



1. The Technical Part of the Painter’s Manuals Compiled and Used by Early Iconographers. Historic Notes

The word “icon” comes from the Greek


which means image. Typically icons are devotional objects representing characters or scenes from the Bible. Throughout history they have been made on different supports, using different materials and tools.

Mihaela D. Leonida

2. Materials From Natural Sources and Those Prepared in the Iconographer’s Studio or in the Peasant Household

The materials used by ancient iconographers in the Southeuropean area and which are described in the painter’s manuals and in


were found in the surrounding nature (ores, local flora) or in the peasant household (beeswax, linseed oil, tallow, soap, vinegar, ethylic solutions). Some materials (pigments, resins, some solvents, siccatives, fillers, dehydrating agents, flocculants) were prepared in their workshops or in those of other iconographers, local or foreign.

Mihaela D. Leonida

3. Pigments

The first use of color precedes written history and it probably involved body painting. Early humans found their pigments in the minerals occurring in soils and clays. Starting with the Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal humans, red ochre, hematite, Fe




(Cotton et al., Advanced inorganic chemistry, 6th edn., Wiley Interscience, New York, p. 1350), appears in burials or fertility rites, probably representing blood. Continuing along these lines, the next step was the early use of color in the cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux in France, Altamira in Spain, and those at Tassili n’Ajjer (North Africa). When humans learned how to grind minerals, almost thirty thousand years ago, they mixed them with water (the first pigment vehicle) and applied them to stone surfaces (Mihalcu and Leonida, Iconography in the late Romanian Middle Ages: granulometry issues, Studii Teologice, Seria III, V, 4:37–56, 2009). These earth colors were the earliest known coloring materials and they lacked brightness. Greens, blues and vivid colors in general were totally absent from the first palettes used by our ancestors. The missing colors were discovered by the civilizations around the Mediterranean (Leonida and Mihalcu, Old copper-based pigment. The Bulletin (NJAS), 50, 2:15–19, 2005).

Mihaela D. Leonida

4. Gilding

Medieval artists valued gold the most among the metals known at the time. It suggests richness, light, power, homage, permanence. When used in religious artifacts, the presence of gold was meant to impart to the object its noble characteristics (and increase the commercial value) but also to suggest the splendor and perfection of the world “beyond”. Besides being associated with splendor, power, wealth, homage, love, this metal has a pleasant color, it can be made to gleam and reflect. Being one of the most inert metals, it occurs in pure form in nature and it does not tarnish or become dull. Gold is also probably the most malleable of metals. It can be beaten into very thin sheets (gold leaf) and drawn out into cobweb filament.

Mihaela D. Leonida

5. Adhesives Prepared from Vegetal and Animal Sources Used by Iconographers

Glues prepared from natural materials of vegetal and animal origin were used by iconographers in different applications: primer recipes for painting on wood with tempera paints, on textiles, on dry mortar, in oil paints to make them shine, in adhesive primers used for gilding in manuscripts, in inks, and in some restorations and impregnations. All these adhesive preparations were similar to those used in Western Europe and in the Middle as well as the Far East.

Mihaela D. Leonida

6. Varnishes

The first varnish recipe known is one found in the manuscript of Theophilus Presbyter (On divers arts, 1979) and it is that of an oil varnish. A varnish is a solution of a resin in a volatile solvent. Brushed on a painted surface, it dries leaving a glossy, transparent, protective film. There are two types of varnishes: simple solution varnish (resin is dissolved directly in the solvent) and oil varnish (resin is melted together with a drying oil and a drier, then thinned with a solvent). From the outset, passing through Cenninni’s Handbook (The craftsman’s handbook, 1960), the De Mayerne manuscript (Lost secrets of Flemish painting including the first complete English translation of the De Mayerne Manuscript, 2001), the Athonite, and the Romanian


, varnishes were always an object of study for those who studied materials employed by painters.

Mihaela D. Leonida

7. Inks Prepared and Used by Iconographers

During the Middle Ages writing was done on varied materials (parchment, paper, wood, wood tablets covered in wax, glass, stone, mortar) and using varied tools (quills, nibs, brushes, by incision, by carving). The observations included in this chapter are concerned with inks used to write on paper and parchment only. They were used for official documents, but also to transcribe the painters’ handbook and to write on manuscripts (some of them illuminated). Some originated in princely, judicial or ecclesiastical offices. There are also numerous manuscripts written by clergymen or laymen who exchanged letters, translated or copied other manuscripts, or recorded events, balances, thoughts, recipes of interest for everyday life or for practicing different trades. Knowing the composition of the inks, the way to prepare and to use them, is of interest for the history of science, for those who conserve and restore art objects, as well as for their custodians.

Mihaela D. Leonida

8. About Grinding

Like the Western European artisans, the iconographers from Southeastern Europe were grinding their materials, according to the needs of different techniques used, in their own workshops. Practice and tradition imprinted into and transmitted through a remarkable collective memory the fact that particle size (especially that of pigments) was very important (for hue, amount consumed, shortening the working time) in the process of making the icons. To emphasize the importance of grinding, in the fourteenth century Cennino Cennini in his “The Craftman’s Handbook” (Cennini, The craftsman’s handbook, 1960) was saying how to do it for cinnabar: “…and grind it with clear water as much as you ever can; for if you were to grind it every day for 20 years, it would still be better and more perfect.” Similarly, Turquet de Mayerne in his seventeenth century manuscript (De Mayerne, Lost secrets of Flemish painting including the first complete English translation of the De Mayerne Manuscript, 2001) describes how different colors have to be ground and in which medium (water, oil, etc).

Mihaela D. Leonida

9. Iconographers and the Fresco Technique

The term


typically describes the

buon fresco

process in which painting is done upon a wet lime-plaster wall with pigments ground either in water or a water-based solution only. When the wall dries, the painting (the fresco) becomes an integral part of the surface, which makes it more durable than superimposed decorations. It also has a matte (dead flat) finish which allows it to be viewed from all angles without undue glare or reflections. Another type of




, has the painted layer applied on a dry surface. It is basically a surface coating and therefore less permanent than true


, the mechanical resistance of the product being lower. The means to paint frescoes are and have been through history as many as there are schools of art.

Mihaela D. Leonida

10. Icons on Glass: Materials and Technique

Peasant icons on glass offer a strange image of a folk art, clearly outlined and unique in its technical quality and sensitivity. While a few paintings on glass were found in Central Europe (mainly Bohemia and Austria), the area where this type of craft was practiced extensively and reached maturity was Transylvania and Northern Moldova. The beginnings of this artistic Romanian pursuit are not well known. Because of the frailty of the glass support, and of the poor adherence of the color to this shiny, non-porous surface, many, far too many, ancient icons on glass have disappeared over time. Icons found in different collections, which bear an indication that makes it possible to date them, belong usually to the second half of the eighteenth century (Fig. 10.1) (Wendt HC (1953) Rumänische Ikonenmalerei. Eine kunstgeschichtliche Darstellung. Erich Röth Verlag, Eisenach). In the Romanian area this genre reached its pinnacle between 1830–1900. After 1900 this technique was used by very few iconographers (Ioanidu IC, Radulescu GG (1942) Icons on glass.Bulletin of the Commission for Historical Monuments, fasc 113–114).

Mihaela D. Leonida

11. The Apprenticeship of an Iconographer

Much has been written about icons, with a great deal of interest and remarkable competence, especially during the twentieth century. However, almost all that has been written has been about the visible face of icons. Those who studied them were, in most cases, art historians and art critics, regular historians or theologians interested in Biblical history and in the part of the icon conveying the message (implicitly in the iconographic programs). Naturally, they went as far as the limits of their respective specialized fields, and no further.

Mihaela D. Leonida


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